Category Archives: Holy Days & Festivals

Between Death and Life

sunlight-vitamin-d1Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.

Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.

This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?

David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”

At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer,  Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”

We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die.  We yearn to be inscribed and sealed  in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.

Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.”  For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.”  These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”

The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)

How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday?  We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.

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Posted on September 7, 2014

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G*d is Everywhere… No, Really

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shutterstock_128441795 (1)Images of horror, most pointedly the public beheadings of two American journalists in a matter of weeks, have ensured that the days leading up to the Season of Awe will continue to be stained with cruelty and violence. What hope can there be for a month already so tragic trailing a summer marred by war, rising Anti-Semitism globally and fatal injustice in the streets of St. Louis. And yet, this month on the Jewish calendar is Elul, not only the last month of the waning year but a special occasion in its own regard. Elul is the month in which G*d is everywhere. G*d is everywhere? What can that mean? On one hand its obvious, a kind of theological tautology because being everywhere is kind of in G*d’s job description. On the other its preposterousif G*d was everywhere would the world be so messed up? Could G*d really be there when a young man gets shot down, when a war of necessity demands such a great human cost, when hatred broils in the streets. Could G*d really be there when the knife is wielded by the murderers of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?

But the idea that G*d is everywhere during Elul is understood in our tradition as neither self-evident nor grotesque. Instead we regard Elul as a time of special focus on G*d’s nearness, a period even more suited to connect meaningfully with G*d then the High Holy Days themselves. According to beautiful teaching, while G*d can be thought of like a King who sits upon an exalted throne on Rosh Hashana, during Elul the Sovereign can be found walking through the fields. And we, following the call of the Prophet Isaiah, are to make the most of this opportunity to “Seek G*d as G*d is found, call when G*d is near” Isaiah’s words may seem strange. Shouldn’t the time to send out a search party for G*d be when G*d is far away or hidden?

But Isaiah’s words are the secret to Elul: G*d’s presence is not the answer to a prayer, but the impetus to search. Our heightened awareness of the closeness of G*d is not an invitation to leave the practical and material world behind, but an inspiration to do better, to dig deeper, to take seriously the challenge of making the world a place marked by compassion, justice, and peace. Not to forget or ignore the places far away, but also to bring our attention to our relationships with those close by and the reality of our own lives. Where G*d is also found, right at this moment. Because G*d is everywhere. Really.

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Posted on September 5, 2014

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God at the Speed of Life

Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.

speed-of-lifeModern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.

Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?

The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life?  Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?

We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.

The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.

Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.

For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.

The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?

Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.

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Posted on September 4, 2014

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Today Matters

Credit Charlie Kalech  j-town.co.il

Credit Charlie Kalech j-town.co.il

At a construction site at the Jerusalem bus station there is a multi-paneled chalkboard with space for people to fill in what they are grateful for.

If I were making the list today it would read, the ocean, the stunning weather, my children’s health. A shift in the carpool this morning gave way to an extraordinary view of the Pacific on the way to work. On another day, I might have not even seen it and concentrated on the flowers or trees instead. The weather today is oddly perfect for San Francisco. There is little chance we will have many more days like this. And despite their general good health, I know better than to believe in the false security that this is in any way a guarantee for my children’s future. I am grateful for the graces of the moment. For that which I see, appreciate right now.

We are counting the Omer. It is a strange practice, which I don’t fully understand. I can of course quote the meanings and explanations that the tradition gives but it remains a bit mysterious to me. Why the need to number our days, to account for the passing of time so very carefully?

But I know it is too easy to let time pass. Days go by without notice. One set of flowers, blends into a sunset, into a fight with a loved one, into a day at the office and errands and then a year goes by. Last week when we observed Yom Hashoah, I was struck by how in my remembered lifetime the pervasive presence of survivors has given way to the dominance of memory and recordings. Time, which once stood still in ghettos and camps, has gone by quickly. In my children’s lifetime the Holocaust will pass into distant memory.

Every day and every moment matters, but for these seven weeks, between Passover and Shavuot we stop daily and take a moment to mark the passage of time. We heighten our awareness of the ancient journey that Israelites took from slavery to revelation. Like the passersby near the Jerusalem bus station, we are given an opportunity to consider the gifts that we have. Noticing does not make the time go any faster or slower but it does help us appreciate what we have in the moment.

Posted on May 1, 2014

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Is it (Mentally) Healthy to Fall Apart?

sefirot wikimediaFalling apart is a kind of strength.

At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”

During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.

Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.

Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.

Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.

Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.

For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.

My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.

Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.

Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.

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Posted on April 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Packing for the Journey

clutterMy parents still live in the house I grew up in. Since leaving it, I have moved 14 times. Each time I move, I have to get rid of the clutter that has accumulated -sometimes more, sometimes less – usually books, but since my child was born, also toys, clothes outgrown, keepsakes from each stage of his life…

I know that I should acquire less. Even though we buy little, it creeps up on me, until I feel weighed down by it all, and yet, many of those things feel precious and irreplaceable. And some of them are.

Each year at Passover, I wonder at all the stuff that seems to be required to leave Egypt -and I think of the Israelites, who left too fast even for bread to rise, but managed to remember their tambourines. No wonder it was so hard for them, no wonder they complained so much: I can imagine them saying to themselves, I can’t leave behind little Dvorah’s first clay bird sculpture, Aharon’s project, that straw-woven hat… even though the straw and the clay were both reminders of the slavery they were escaping.

Sometimes I wish for the purity of having nothing. Sometimes, I long to hold my history in my hands and I am ready for Passover to end, not so I can eat bread, but so I can, for a little while, pretend that the things around me will last into the future.

Posted on April 23, 2014

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Ten Plagues of the 21st Century

“It’s not that I have an issue with her having sex, per se,  it’s just that it should mean something.  You know?”

That’s what a parent I met years ago said about his suspicion that his teenage daughter was having casual sex in his home while he and his wife were away on a brief trip.  That sentiment, that ‘it should mean something’, is what I’m thinking about as Pesach is coming to a close.  It’s not that I’ll miss Passover exactly, it’s that its message is so important that I don’t want to forget about it for an entire year. “It should mean something. You know?”

moses2We are suppose to feel as if we ourselves have been taken out of a dangerous and narrow place, Egypt, and have been liberated.  To make this come alive, at our seder tables we recounted the 10 plagues.  For each plague we took out a drop of wine, reminding ourselves that while each plague was indeed a miracle for the Hebrews, the opposite was simultaneously true for the Egyptians.  We cannot enjoy a full cup of joy while others suffer, even when it was due and coming to them.  So what are plagues that exist today that inspire in me an sense of freedom should I be able to imagine a life without them?

What are the Plagues of the 21st Century that upon the close of this festival of freedom we will still need to contend with?

  1.  Blood.  It is preposterous to me that in a time and age when we know what is happening in almost every inch of our globe that we have grow so numb as to allow so much war and bloodshed throughout world, but especially the African continent.  “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
  2. Frogs.  The incessant croaking of the frogs made it nearly impossible for the Egyptians to even think a clear thought.  Such are many of the TV pundits, who, in the guise of informative journalist, are mere partisan bloviators who confuse partial truths with good policy positions.
  3.  Lice.  Lice, like the spots in Cat in the Hat, lice are little things that once you turn your attention to them, they seem to multiply.  It’s as if they were specially designed to piss you off.  What are the little things in your life that are multiplying and seem to be taking over?
  4. Wild Beasts.  “Who do those animals think they are?” In the realm of animals, we often think of humans as the pinnacle power and control.  During the plague of the wild beast, that was turned upside down.  Hate crimes, such as the one perpetrated in Overland Park, Kansas remind us that it’s not all peace and manna here in the monkey house. When there is a lack of order, when our protections fail, we are fearful, and we know the topsy turvy plague of the wild beasts.
  5. Cattle Disease.  Cattle stock was a measure of value and of security in the ancient world.  Some people put their stock in the  stock market, but so many others, the overwhelming majority of humanity on this planet, have no savings, or are half a paycheck away, or one hospitalization away from being wiped out.
  6. Boils.  Private indiscretions, no matter how well concealed, find a way to come to the surface.  If they’ve been hidden from view, if we’ve tried to hide Truth, perhaps especially from ourselves, the Truth tends to boil over.  This is true for the NSA, for the CIA wiretapping Guantanamo Bay hearings.  When a Truth once hidden comes to the surface, it’s ugly and it disfigures precisely those who tried to hide the truth for personal gain.  It’s true for those who post maliciousness on the internet and its true for cheating Congressmen who run on a platform of “religious values”.
  7. Hail.  In each ball of ice was a tar ball, all aflame.  We can no longer ignore our environment.  When it’s cold, it’s colder.  When it’s hot, it’s hotter.  And, it’s not even hot or cold in the right season any more.  Nature in no longer playing by her usual rules.  It’s disorienting.  The environmental impact of global warming are multi-factorial and so monumental as to seems beyond human ability to correct.
  8. Locust.  Like lice, locust swarm.  There are too many things that need our attention.  The digital age isn’t helping much with this.  There is so much that we can pay partial focus to.   Have you ever missed your stop on the subway?  Or your exit on the freeway?  Have you ever read a page of a book, blinked, and than wondered if you had really read that page?  Now, add in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and some Candy Crush (of Flappy Bird if you still have that app.).  It’s not all bad, in fact, much of it is good, but our digital life can turn into such a time-suck.  Our bifurcated lives have the potential, much more than any age before ours, to make us less attentive when we should be more mindful.  I see people quickly feeling swamped, overwhelmed, so much so they see only two choices, caring less (F’ it) or pushing on and living with greater and greater anxiety (this really leads back to some level of F’ it, so just one choice).
  9. Darkness: The darkness of the 9th plague was palpable.  Egyptians were physically stuck in the think slosh of the darkness.  This is not the “good darkness” of Barbara Brown Taylor, this is depression.  Depression is a thick tar that coats everything with darkness.  There in no joy, there is no motivation, there is just stuck-ness, meaninglessness, and for some, deep pain.
  10. Death.  The final plague is a culmination of the previous nine as well as a return to the first, bloodshed.  When we ignore bloodshed, when we’ve let our trouble rise and rise such that the world feels upside-down, and all that we can see is darkness, we will have suffocated hope.  Without hope, there is only death.  There is no opportunity to change, no ideal with which to steer a new generation toward.  In the face of any and every obstacle, the greatest plague is the death of hope.  Without hope we sink into absurdity.  Without hope, there is no love, no beauty, and no meaning.  Without hope there is only death.

Posted on April 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Dog at the Seder

Dog SilhouetteAs a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?

Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.

One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.

Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.

Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.

As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.

Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?

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Posted on April 14, 2014

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Rabbis Without Borders Hanukkah Gift Guide

Happy Hanukkah, Jewish learners and lovers of Jewish learners! If gift-giving is a part of your Hanukkah tradition, let our Rabbis Without Borders gift guide help you find the perfect gift. From books and albums made by our fellows to silly odds and ends, we’ve got something for everyone.

Also be sure to check out our “Shalom, Y’all!” Southern & Jewish Gift GuideOutdoorsy Hanukkah Gift Guide, Keshet Rainbow Pride Gift Guide, and our Classic Hanukkah Shopping Guide.

Our yearning for answers is no different now than it was in Biblical times, writes RWB Rabbi Irwin Kula in his eye-opening, stirring book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:

yearnings

A former West Bank settler, RWB Rabbi Brad Hirschfield now teaches inclusiveness and celebrating diversity. You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right is a personal, moving read:

wrong for right

The Amidah is one of the most powerful prayers in Judaism. These Amidah Meditation Cards by RWB Rabbi Marcia Prager ($25) offers a guided practice for each of the ancient blessings:

amidah

RWB Rabbi Shefa Gold is a musician and author who introduces Jewish chant, mysticism and spirituality as a transformative spiritual practice. Shir Delight is a gorgeous, spiritual album:

shir delight

Want to learn about Jewish mysticism but don’t know where to begin? Written by a leading Kabbalahist (and RWB rabbi!), The Everything Kabbalah Book is a wonderful first step:

kabbalah

Counting the Omer, by RWB Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Kabbalistic meditation guide to the days between Passover and Shavuot, offering insights into daily life and spirituality:

51xNuSZnEHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

How to Spot One of Us by RWB Rabbi Janet R. Kirchheimer is a poetry collection inspired by her family’s tragedy in the Holocaust. She provides a moving tribute to the powers of faith and hope:

hts

RWB Rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat wrote a poem each week of her son’s first year. Her collection, Waiting to Unfold, reflects on the challenges and blessings of early parenthood:

waiting-unfold-rachel-barenblat-paperback-cover-art

Found in Translation is more than just a book about words. RWB Rabbi Pamela Gottfried’s essays about everyday experiences are lighthearted and inspirational. A memorable read: 

41Gv23--vXL

…and now for some rabbi fun:

Rabbear (yep, we said it) is a stuffed traditionalist. Decked out in a tallit and hat, he cuts a dashing figure and would look great on a bookshelf. That said, we’d like to see a woman on the plush pulpit:

RABBIBEAR

Take the Rabbi’s Challenge on this hand-finished wooden Star of David puzzle:

HANDWOOD

Melissa & Doug’s Hanukkah Box of Questions helps start great conversations:

HANUKKAHQUESTIONS

Light These Lights is a collection of beautiful Hanukkah songs by Debbie Friedman for the whole family to enjoy:

sing

Are you a fan of interfaith dialogue? This “Prays Well With Others” bumper sticker is a cheeky way to express your appreciation for all religions.

prays well with others

Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. We hope this gift guide helps!

Posted on November 21, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Halloween With Jewish Values?

Chocolate_Candies_in_Pumpkin_Pail_(5076897960)Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.

Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.

I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)

For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.

If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.

So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.

Posted on October 29, 2013

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